Tag Archives: science

#MetalCore: Walking on 16 Psyche

Soundtrack: anything that makes you bleed out of your ears..

The horizon is small. It always feels weird when  you see it curving away unnaturally the way it does. Of course, this chunk of nowhere you’re on is a little smaller than home on Mars. Even there though tourists from Earth are full of ooh and aahs at the Red Planet’s horizon.

16 Psyche. Take a security job there they said. It’ll be fun they said. Guard the most precious hunk of metal in the solar system; an asteroid over 200 km in diameter, composed almost entirely of iron and nickel. Over a quadrillion dollars worth. This place could smash the earth’s economy to smithereens.

16 psyche 1
Roughly elliptical in shape, and with a fairly even surface, 16 Psyche is a true relic from the formation of the solar system. Image: Arizona State University


A lot of other places in the solar system have a certain feduciary value. Asteroid mining has been big biz for a long time now.  Your grandparents were among the first belt miners, heading out from Hamer Station on Phobos.

16 Psyche is the jewel in the Crown. This chunk of metal comprises nearly one per cent of the asteroid belt. Like all gold rushes there’s naturally a lot of interest, to put it diplomatically. You’re here to take care of folks who get a little….too interested.

This place sure gets boring though. Most security is automated these days. Fleets of weaponised drones orbit the moon, keeping a watchful eye out for unwanted visitors. Space piracy isn’t much like Star Wars. Space is way to dangerous and chaotic for that. No, in this day and age anyone wanting a piece of this prize has to be organised to the fourteenth decimal place. They need to know what they’re doing, and they need lots and lots of money behind them. Like the privateers of old, the only pirates these days are on government or corporate payrolls, mainly out to disrupt things. Occasionally they head out here and make pains in the ass of themselves, but that’s about all they really do. The real wars for territory take place in boardrooms across the solar system.

You don’t care. The view is incredible. You’re walking on the core of a protoplanet!

This place was named Psyche after the greek word for soul. Walking on this bare expanse of metal it seems fitting; that this exposed core is a window into the soul of a dead world…

The gravity on these tiny bodies always messes with you. On Phobos you weigh about 70 grams. Here, you’re the same weight as a small cat. You think back to your time on the tiny Martian moon. Handrails everywhere. The moon was covered with them like chain mail. Too easy to trip over a rock and become an unofficial new moon of the red planet. Who was that guy working out of Stickney Crater?  He had a good operation going; a small fleet of drones patrolling the space around Phobos, plucking over enthusiastic hikers from Martian orbit.

You’ve forgotten his name. Who cares anyway? Here on 16 Psyche the handrails aren’t a big deal. The whole asteroid is metal, right? Iron, for the most part. Taking a walk across the metal fissures and canyons is simple. No engineering expertise needed; just magnetic boots.

Break time. You squat down in a dark crack in the surface and log off for a bit.

The commute out here is the ultimate trip to work.

This asteroid lies roughly 3 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun. An AU is roughly 93 million  kilometres: the distance at which earth lies from the sun. 16 Psyche spins slowly- so you’ve been told. With only the Milky Way up there you can’t really tell. There’s been a bit of activity today. A few unmarked ships have come a little close. One even buzzed the extraction facility over at Jay Gorge. It’s a low gee quarry basically. The drill broke down, a monster the miners out at Jay call Grindstein. Built on Earth decades ago, Grindstein saw service on Mars and the Moon, carving cities out of the regolith. Now it’s here, taking tiny nibbles out of the most valuable chunk of metal anywhere.

The broken drill is sabotage someone said. Economic rivals want this place, and they’ll stoop to all sorts of tricks to disrupt things anyway they can.

You don’t really care. You really came here because it’s not every day you get to walk on the core of a planet! 16 Psyche is a battle scarred veteran of the very earliest eons of the solar system. Once it was a newly minted protoplanet. Now a remnant, this place dodged other large forming bodies and chunks of debris, orbiting a ten million year old sun. The night sky looked very different then. The solar system was a coalescing mess of rock, ice and organic muck. Everything was colliding and jostling. 16 Psyche’s outer layers were destroyed; torn away by up to eight impacts with other large bodies.

Earth’s moon may have formed in a similar cataclysm. 16 Psyche’s original face may have been destroyed in 8 such impacts.
  1. Rough childhood. Maybe this nugget represents what Earth may have ended up looking like, had Jupiter not scooped up rogue planetesimals terrorising the inner solar system during the late Heavy Bombardment.

Where did all that outer shell go? You wonder sometimes. This place took a beating for sure. Now this frozen little nugget is all that’s left. Old NASA sent a mission here way back in the 2020s, sending back pictures of a cracked metal hulk. Not all of the outer mantle was stripped away.  About ten per cent of the surface is silicate rock, no different to anywhere on Mars, Earth, Venus or Mercury. That thin veneer was once the mantle and crust of a planet that no longer exists.

Video: Arizona State University

Science began taking a back seat to big business sometime after that NASA mission arrived, so the one and only scientific mission to 16 Psyche couldn’t turn up much. But big business was more motivated. All the big players headed out here to slap their dollars, roubles,  renminbi or rupees down on the table. There were even people sent here. There’s only so much automation can do. Tunnels were dug into the asteroid, and human beings finally journeyed to the centre of the earth, in a sense. Jules Verne would have been proud. The first tunnel into the core of this core was actually called Verne tunnel….

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little trip into the future. 16 Psyche is just one of a number of bizarre places in the solar system that are worth a tale. There are several other incredible places I plan on visiting in future posts. Tell me what you think!




Follow the nascent 16 Psyche mission, blasting off from a planet near you in 2022.

Take a look at NASA Psyche Mission (@NASAPsyche): https://twitter.com/NASAPsyche?s=09

References and further reading:






Soundtrack: the opening theme of “The Big Bang Theory”



When I was in university I majored in Earth Sciences and Biology, thinking this was some sort of suitable compromise with my then academic ambitions. You see, I’d really wanted to study palaeontology. It had been one of those vague childhood longings that had not quite managed to be squeezed into a torpor by life. Having these two majors seemed to make sense. For part of the day I was studying geology, geophysics and sedimentary processes.  For the remainder I was buried in lower eukaryotes,  molecular and microbiology and animal physiology. Dinosaurs are somewhere in the midst of all that, right?

Kind of. Well the dinosaurs fell by the wayside (became extinct?) and I found myself really liking pretty much everything else I was studying. Learning is a joy in itself. Whilst in university I was privileged to attend lectures given by Dr Leigh Burgoyne. For those unfamiliar with molecular biology Dr Burgoyne is half of a pair of scientists who elucidated the structure of chromatin.

What tha’ heck is chromatin? Chromatin is a complex of structural proteins that enable Deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA) to play the ultimate game of Tetris. DNA is a very wily molecule, which I’ve touched on in a previous post. It has insane data storage potential, and a single strand of DNA is three metres long! Now you understand why it needs some mad packaging skills to squeeze into something the size of one of your cells. That’s basically what chromatin does.

Life wouldn’t work if it didn’t have an epic case of OCD.


I remember a single lecture given by Dr Burgoyne. To be honest, I remember very little of about nine-tenths of it (it’s still stashed in my head somewhere), but then it seemed like he really began speaking.

He told us the tale of life….

In order to parse what he told us I need to paraphrase what he said. I need to mix metaphors and go off on tangents.

Now, any students of science out there will have butted heads with statistics and probability whilst studying. I’m not in any way being elitist here. Most sane people know that the universe is a collection of freakish accidents all cycling constantly and spewing out more freakish accidents. Somehow, a stream of such accidents has led to you. As Terry Pratchett said in one of his Discworld novels;

Million to one chances happen nine times out of ten.”


We are all freak accidents. Every single person- every single thing– alive today is a current iteration of a single freak accident that took place in a warm, shallow pond nearly 4 billion years ago. Or trapped inside ice. Or on the slope of a deep-sea hydrothermal vent. On a sheet of clay even.

Hell, maybe it was on the shifting gravel filled terrain of a passing comet. Who knows? I’m sure not going to be presumptuous. Theories on the origin of life abound. I strongly suggest venturing out into the literature and checking these out for yourself.

Freak accident.

That accident somehow decided it wanted to keep on keeping on. So it went looking for other freak accidents to consume. This in itself required some changes. And so it began.


Life is not just a thing in itself.  Life is all of the things that life does. Emergence gave us life.

Life got hungry. Life went looking. Life grew. At some point life joined forces with other life, going onto business. These partnerships have lasted till this day. Life became stronger, faster. Like human explorers expanding forever westwards life travelled. It began to see. It began to conquer. The entire planet was a vast new frontier. A planet of accidents and danger. At every single turn life met with struggle, and it was forced to sink or swim.

So it either sank or swam. You’re only here right now, sitting on this train, or hiding in the toilet for a few minutes because every single one of your ancestors swam. If the theory of a multiverse holds any water, then in another universe it’s someone else reading here in this spot. Or I never existed to write this and you’re watching a Minecraft walk through on YouTube instead. Whatever floats your boat.

I remember the lecture. Dr Burgoyne gave his thoughts on the astronomical run of good luck that led to everyone being in that lecture theatre. I swear, you could have heard a pin drop. People were listening. It was an amazing moment.

NOT the lecture in question, but you get the picture..

What’s more amazing than the fact that we are here at all? The fact that in nearly four billion years of life, the central message of life has only degraded by a few percent! That’s just nuts! Think about it!

DNA (sometimes RNA) is the information storage molecule for all life. RNA stores the genetic information within viruses, which inhabit a shadowy world somewhere between the living and the abiotic world. For the sake of simplicity I will refer only to DNA.  We’re all scientifical enough to not get all Sheldon Cooper when I hold up DNA  as THE information storage molecule.

Moving on Ben.

Think of life as a signal, and DNA is the filter, tuning out cosmic background clutter and refining it into something pretty improbable. Like you. At a point in time the signal was set in motion. Whether it was in a pond, an iceberg or a comet, life got going; using some kind of information storage in order to send copies of itself out into the big bad world.

That signal’s been around for a very long time, replicating and transcribing and reinventing itself in an endless profusion of forms. Some very ancient cellular machinery has been hard at work, replicating DNA with incredible fidelity. What amazes me about all of this is that cellular automata (proteins for the most part) carry out this herculean task. Proteins aren’t alive. They are essential players in the mechanics of life, but they aren’t alive in themselves. Some proteins are capable of replication, but that’s another post in itself (and an interesting one too).

Let’s play the Pepsi taste challenge, but instead of cola drinks let’s compare say…YOU and a bacterium. That seems a bit silly, right? There couldn’t possibly be two more different organisms on the face of the planet. Let’s put aside the fact that your particular body is about ninety percent bacteria in terms of numbers. Let’s focus on the ten percent of you that’s actually YOU. Ok. You have eyes, ears and wear pants. You’re reading this post on a phone, computer or tablet.

Keyword: Reading.

Implication: highly complex brain along with associated neuronal infrastructure, from which emerges this nebulous thing called a consciousness. You can’t point at it, but you know it’s there.

You wear clothes. I wear warm clothes right now, because it’s a cold day. You’re probably drinking or eating something right now. I’m sucking down a coffee. Implications of this: you have a digestive system, along with associated waste disposal mechanisms. You have fingers, and nostrils to stick them up sometimes, leading to lungs. You can drive a car. Other creatures like you have walked on the Moon and made brainless YouTube videos.

Bacteria, by comparison to you, are a little simplistic right?

E. coli. Doesn’t seem too impressive, right?


Time to shatter some illusions. You may have heard that human beings and chimpanzees are 98 percent genetically identical. Only 2 percent of your DNA makes you human, compared to a chimp. Well, brace yourself.

You and that bacterium you look down upon so loftily differ genetically by 10 percent. TEN percent! In nearly four billion years, bacteria, one of the oldest lineages of life to exist, have barely changed. All of those changes have been tiny and incremental, giving rise to the kaleidoscopic variety of life that runs, flies and swims across this planet now. That’s pretty amazing. Just knowing something like that feels like being privy to some cosmic secret. Hell, I think it is.

Ha! Thought you were hot stuff, didn’t you?

Let’s keep going with this biological Pepsi taste challenge.

Can you keep gossip to yourself? We live in an age where information and reality are becoming blurred. The very existence of Alt-news, Alt-facts, false news, filter bubbles and a host of other ills plaguing the last few bastions of enlightenment are nothing new. Have you ever played the game of Chinese whispers? I’m Australian, so it may be called something different where you come from. A story is spoken, or whispered into the ear of a player, who whispers it into the ear of the next, and so on. It’s fun to see how the story spontaneously mutates, changing as it goes. Sometimes it reaches the final person in the line a completely new beast. This string of mutations happens quickly, completely changing the original story, and all in a few moments.

Social media. It has a weapons grade case of Chinese whispers….

Think of your genetic information, or genome, as a book. Blindly and efficiently this book is replicated. The two entwined threads in it’s double helix are unwound by DNA helicase. Then DNA polymerase attaches to the strands, and attaches complementary nucleotides to their respective exposed base pairs along the strand. This is an extremely cut down version of what happens, but all you really need to know in the context of this post is this: it all happens extremely quickly. In the bacterium Eschericia coli, replication can speed along at the rate of around 1,000 nucleotides per second. DNA polymerase in your cells works much more slowly, at a snail-like 50 nucleotides per second. Such speeds are achieved by many polymerases attaching to unfettered DNA strands. Many hands make light work after all. How much can you achieve in one second? All of this goes to show that parallel processing is one of Nature’s oldest tricks.

You’d be completely reasonable to assume that such a process would be fraught with errors. It is. But unlike the game of Chinese whispers, or the rant on Facebook, errors of interpretation and transcription happen much more infrequently. After all, if DNA replication was untidy and prone to errors life would have eventually never taken off. Early in the piece evolution made sure that efficient replication of information was critical. Some mutation is good, but too much is bad. A few mutations here and there over the eons have given rise to you. Too much mutation and life breaks down. So what constitutes a few mutations here and there?

Without organisation and proofreading, life would maybe have made it this far….

For every 10 billion base pairs that are replicated, approximately 1 error gets through. DNA polymerase on its own is pretty good at what it does. Being completely automatic it doesn’t have a pesky brain doing bothersome things like over thinking or day-dreaming. It isn’t perfect, however. Left to itself, DNA polymerase will stuff things up to the order of 1 bad base pair in every 100 million replicated. A suite of repair enzymes are at its disposal, tidying up these mistakes and getting replication fidelity up to the 1 in 10 billion mark.

Boy, talk about an amateur. Me, that is. I’m a chef by profession. After 22 years of sweating it out in kitchens, I still manage to burn at least one piece of bread a day (don’t tell anyone). If pieces of toast were living things, then at my hands not only would they never evolve, they would become extinct long before they ever had a chance. Maybe they should have enzymes working in kitchens.

Maybe not.

So, I hope you see what I mean. Every single living thing on earth (and who knows where else) exists purely because extremely high fidelity of replication has evolved to ensure against excessive mutation. Another way of putting it is; even after four billion years of nearby supernovae, disasters, extinctions, geochemical catastrophes and endless strife, life has been able to hold on, and all because of extremely faithful data storage and propagation. If we ourselves can evolve past our own tendency to conflate every thing we hear and describe, maybe we could stick around for a while longer too.

Life is a signal, a signal that can’t be broken. Let’s learn from it.




Turn that dial. What’s on the radio?

Crackle. Static. Hissss……


Welcome back!

You’ve seen Mars. Who hasn’t?  Done to death! Orbital skydiving from Phobos? Yesterday’s thrill! Jupiter? Saturn? 


Deep sea diving with the natives on Europa?

Somebody wake me up!

Chuck all those snoozefests in the trash because we have something special just for the first 10 callers!

Yessiree we’ve moved on from plain old space tourism. None of this flying over the dark side of the moon for hyper rich tourists! Its  2087, and for a limited time Ben’s Lab Mystery Tours have a ripper for you!


For a moment I thought I actually heard crickets chirping in this studio…
What’s that you say? Venus is the Florida of the Solar System! How can that possibly be exciting?  I don’t want to fall asleep in the upper atmosphere, enjoying the sun and mild temperatures on some Cloud City! Retirement villages, man!

Well, how about we forget the cloud cities then? We have put together- for the extreme extreme sports nuts out there, a holiday from Hell- in Hell!
Take a walk on Venus.

I hear your bowels clenching. Good!

Venus is hardcore. Venus wants to eat you alive and spit you out! Did you know our ancestors thought Venus was a beacon of serenity,  drifting peacefully in the heavens. Ha! They thought Venus was a cloud covered blue green marble like our little planet.

Well, they were right. They just had bad timing. Earth and Venus formed at roughly the same time, forming from a molecular cloud, made of gas, dust and other muck drifting around our own newly formed sun.

Earth got lucky. We were at just the right distance from the sun for water to exist in a liquid state on the surface. Venus is just within this little strip of safety,  called the Goldilocks Zone.
For half a billion years or so, Earth had a real twin. Sure, Venus is pretty much the same size as Earth, with almost identical gravity, but those two things do not a paradise make. What Venus had back then was oceans. Continents even.  Venus kind of looked like Earth!

Am I selling it yet! Sounds pretty sleepy, doesn’t it? If you nutcases can’t handle the peace and quiet go stick your head in a volcano on Io.

Call now! This is a once in a lifetime experience!

I have a caller! Let’s see who it is!

Jasper Dixon wants to know; what happened to Venus then? How did an earthlike planet transform into an inferno, with crushing clouds of sulphuric acid and carbon dioxide? What about that atmospheric pressure, 92 times our own!

I agree Jasper. That’s just plain silly. Well at the risk of driving away listeners I’m going to tell you. If I explain why Venus is the nastiest place in the solar system I reckon the phones will be ringing off the hook!

It’s all about water. Back on Earth water isn’t just used to make fizzy drinks and fill swimming pools. It isn’t just necessary for all life. The planet needs water as well. Really!

I know, I know, the planet has a hydrological cycle. Oceans are vast heat sinks, storing heat and influencing climate. Water evaporates, creating rain and clouds, which not only bug us when we’ve just hung clothes on the line, they also reflect a lot of sunlight and heat back out into space. The planet’s reflectivity is called it’s albedo.

This is all true and all very important. But water performs one other vital function:

It lubricates the planet.

Long ago Earth looked like this. 

Some time later it looked like this. 

Then this.  

Then this. 

Plate tectonics, my friends. The continents are basically slabs of crust which happen to be less dense than the crust the ocean floor is made of, and so they float and slide around, moving very slowly, but definitely moving. Australia is whipping along at breakneck speed: at about five centimetres a year!

Plate tectonics and other events in the earth’s crust perform an important task; They release heat from the planet’s core. This planet contains a liquid metal core which is kept superheated by the decay of radioactive elements left over from earth’s formation. If the planet’s crust didn’t fracture and split all the time where would all this heat go?

Nowhere of course! The planet would just heat up and heat up, overheating until it became, well, it became Venus. We don’t want that.

So what the heck does water have to do with this! We don’t care anymore! We get it! Shut up and take our money!

Impatient lot, aren’t you? Well, you can’t hurry education! 

Remember those cars the old timers used to drive around? Remember how they had to put oil in them to stop the engines seizing up? Well, if earth’s crust isn’t kept lubricated by vast amounts of water running deep, then it too will seize up. This is what has happened to Venus.

Partly, at least. The planet’s surface is now so hot as a result of this runaway negative feedback that it can melt lead.

Better make sure you pack a decent space suit, extreme sports fans. One that can handle temperatures of 490 degrees Celsius. Make sure the electronics are tough too. It was only due to the advent of electronics that could operate in these temperatures that rovers and eventually humans were able to reach down and touch the Venusian dirt.

All you rugged outdoorsey types: don’t bring compasses. Yes, it’s a great idea, no they won’t work. Period. Venus has practically no magnetic field. This is a side effect of it’s core shutting down long ago. Don’t even ask me why. It may be 2087, but how the heck would I know? I’m selling holidays, not winning the Nobel Prize.

The folks up in those cloud cities have it pretty good.  Sure, hard core acid rain is a pain, and having to wear oxygen masks can be annoying. By and large, however it was a brilliant idea. Much easier than that whole Mars fiasco back in the 2050s.  Terraforming a whole planet? Good luck! See you in a couple of thousand years. Maybe. But those cloudies have no idea what’s below them. I know it’s not pretty.

Not a drop of water anywhere. A few wisps in the atmosphere.  0.002 percent of it is water vapour I think. Down on the freshly formed lava plains (by fresh read: less than 100 million  years old!) though; nada. Zilch.

Venus is close to the sun. A lot closer than earth at 108 million k’s. The Sun, being the vicious ball of fury it is, is constantly punishing the inner planets with solar radiation. Mercury is completely dead, baked clean by its proximity to the Sun. Venus held onto to atmosphere for a while, but when it’s core bit the dust that’s when things went south.

Earth has a magnetic field, which protects life on earth from harmful cosmic and solar rays. Sure, we get sunburn sometimes, but that’s a damned sight better than being baked to death, or having our DNA so damaged by radiation all life would perish from lethal mutations.

Without a magnetic field Venus’s one time oceans were slowly stripped and cast into space. Even today traces of this water are being ripped away by solar rays and sent into the Big Empty.

Still sound like fun? There’s always some hardcase out there who just can’t listen to good sense.

Operators are standing by!

One other thing. Feel free to call in and let me know exactly what happened to Venus’s core…

Unthinking Coordination in “Simple” Lifeforms

It’s another picture perfect day here in Adelaide,  South Australia. Despite the fact that Autumn has been with us a few weeks now I’m getting uncomfortably hot. I’m lying on my stomach on a small marina, my face hanging over the edge and inches from the water.

As is the (annoying) habit of our cat I’ve simply dropped down and parked myself right in the walkway. Why?

Jellyfish. Lots of them.

Getting out and looking for little beasties to photograph is a passion of mine. If I’ve managed to randomly bump into some caterpillar or spider I’ve never seen before,  then I pretty much have to clear my diary. I am not a professional photographer by any stretch, but it’s getting out there and seeing these things that’s important. Whilst walking along the wharves in Port Adelaide the sight of thousands upon thousands of jellyfish in the water has me reaching for my cameras, which are always in my car.

This swarm seems extremely out of place. I’ve already done a live stream on Periscope showing the good folks of Internet land this odd phenomenon, and now it’s time to really try and do it some justice.

A Jelly Family Tree

First off, these graceful creatures are Moon Jellies. They are extremely common in Australian waters. I have observed them now in the Port River in St Vincent’s Gulf, South Australia and in Darling Harbour, Sydney, New South Wales.  Moon jellies are a favourite food for many turtle species. Being easy to both eat and catch I could understand why. I was actually asked this very question during  my live stream.  One thing that heartens me during these live streams (and that I notice while watching others) is that people really like animals. In fact, wildlife seems to bring people together in a very positive way.

There’s some kind of take home message in this, don’t you think?

Moon Jelly is the common name for Aurelia aurita,  a species found globally. Jellyfish, along with sea pens, corals, anemones and hydra belong to the animal phylum Cnidaria. Approximately 10000 animal species belong in this group, and all are exclusively aquatic. Cnidaria are an extremely ancient group, with jellyfish fossils up to 500 million years old being discovered. Fossils believed to represent the Cnidarian crown group predate the Cambrian by around 200 million years. Cnidarians represent the oldest multi-organ animals known.

This fossilised jellyfish, found in Cambrian strata in Utah, is diagnostic of modern jellyfish spp. Image: PLOSone. 

The moon jellies, like all scyphozoans;  or true jellyfish, posess cnidocytes. These are specialised barb like cells which on coming into contact with prey (or anything for that matter) penetrate and inject venom into the recipient.

Micrograph of cnidocytes. Image: microscopy-uk.org.uk

These particular jellies are almost harmless to humans. In fact, it’s said that the only way to feel a sting from a moon jelly is to kiss one.

Not enticing.

Australia is however home to several species of jellyfish which are far more dangerous. We do posess our share of dangerous animals. Some of the most lethal venom on Earth can be found in Australian waters. From the tiny Irukandji jellyfish;

Big things come in small packages. The Irukandji jellyfish delivers one of the most lethal venoms on the planet.

To the Box jellyfish:

Just when you thought it was safe….cue menacing music..

The moon jellies gathered here in the Port River are weak swimmers at best and so are often found collected in estuaries and inlets in this way, caught by the tide. Observing these jellies showed them seemingly moving as one: the group seemed to surge in one direction, oscillating back and forth in a manner reminiscent of group behaviours: much as flocks of birds appear to move about as one. Empirical observation would seem to bolster this. The bell structure of most jellies seemed to point in the direction movement.

This is interesting. Jellyfish, along with other cnidarians, appear to have no (or at least very rudimentary) brains. They clearly have nothing we would recognise as a brain. Instead, their bodies are essentially a loosely interwoven collection of simple nerve networks, reacting and interacting with each other for the purposes of responding to stimuli.

This decentralisation of “administrative duties”, or biological anarchy is seen in some rather more advanced creatures. Octopuses are one example. It is now well known that octopuses are extremely intelligent, but these amazing animals are now thought to sit somewhere outside the traditional brain/body divide we have accepted as a basic paradigm of our own physiology.  Not only do octopuses have a brain, but their tentacles operate independently, acting with their own intelligence. Essentially the entire body of an octopus is it’s brain. Is this a feature of marine organisms and the result of marine existence?

While jellyfish could hardly be called intelligent, are we not giving them enough credit? Does living in an environment as featureless and homogenous as the ocean necessitate a particular brand of spatial intelligence and information processing?

Imagine a line representing a scale. This scale is that of intelligence: in particular the gradation from true brainlessness and pure instinct displayed by, say, bacteria to “higher” intelligence in which all memory, learning and response is coordinated by a complex central nervous system ( a brain. Think “human”).

On this line an octopus seems to sit somewhere beyond halfway. Able to perform complex tasks, and armed with a unique “whole body” intelligence the octopus is gaining a whole new respect.

The jellyfish appears to act wholly on pure instinct and autonomic response. I observe a swarm blindly clustering in a protected estuary and wonder. Decentralised nervous systems enable a different flavour of response to external stimuli. It speaks of a wholly different pathway by which intelligence could rise in the ocean. Terrestrial and marine environments could not be any more antithesis to each other. Land changes much more and over shorter periods of time than the sea. The land is a much harsher place in many ways. Organisms living on land have been forced over evolutionary time to undergo many more changes in order to survive: hard eggs, legs, and a much greater reliance on eyesight to name a few. Life in the ocean is vastly more stable. Does the existence of organisms such as horseshoe crabs, jellyfish, sponges and sharks, which have remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of millions of years give testament to this stability?

Where could a creature such as the jellyfish go, given time? The octopus, a simple mollusc, is an impressive example of a non human and quite alien intelligence. Do other forms of awareness and behaviour (that shown by jellyfish) constitute some new paradigm we haven’t recognised yet, and from which intelligence may someday emerge?

#FirstScienceCrush: Meeting Science

It’s nearly 4 pm,  on an absolute postcard perfect day. I’m in my car, parked at a tiny beach; one of a handful strewn along the Port River. Birds scamper on the sand, waves whisper past and the sound of distant traffic is like the pulsing murmur of an unborn child’s heartbeat through an ultrasound. Peace can be found in the most unlikely places sometimes.

In this frame of mind I’ve been thinking about science and it’s place in the lives of the world out there. I know where I fit in, and through a fairly brief but active time on Twitter I’ve discovered a host of others who care about various aspects of science. Scientists, science outreach folks, artists,  explorers, collectors and wanderers. There’s a lot of conversation going on out there. Much of it is exciting and engrossing, some of it can shorten your life one stupid statement at a time.

Where did this start for people? I got curious, after reading a great article in Lateral Magazine. It was the observation of the author that dinosaurs and outer space seem to be two of the main “gateway drugs” leading people into science. I can vouch for both: many of my earliest memories centre around toy dinosaurs, books my dad got for me and the awe inspiring spectacle that was Star Wars, 1979. However,  I would have to say that for me it was dinosaurs that led the charge. Dinosaurs taught me to read. After all, if you want to understand something you find a way to work it out. My earliest books were dinosaur books. Of course, and as seems to be the case, this love affair grew and evolved. I got older, and I found myself interested in just about everything in the animal Kingdom, but dinosaurs were the key to this Kingdom. What about you?

So. We’ve all moved on from toys and daydreams…

(Of course we haven’t! )

Back to Twitter. I decided to run a little poll, asking folks what it was that got them into science:

Not a huge turnout, to be sure, but you can see some common patterns making themselves apparent.

We Love Outer Space!

Duh!! Who doesn’t. We are either drawn to the distant past or the future- immediate or not. Several comments reflected this predilection for the stars, but nature did pretty well also;

“Bug People” seem to be really passionate and popped up a lot in elaborating further on their “gateway drugs”. Even fictional creatures, such as the arthropod-like xenomorph in the “Alien” franchise played a bit part in responses.

A love of these parasitic monsters led to a career in parasitology for one respondent.

Yes, stories are  definitely important in the “recruitment” of budding scientists. The stories we tell ourselves: daydreams, childhood play as well as books and movies.

While bugs and nature had the loudest voice among respondents Outer Space was the runaway winner. Again it’s hard not to disentangle a childhood fascination with the heavens from the landscape of Sci Fi that dominated mine (and many others) imaginations as children.

Excellent responses all, and it’s hard to disagree with any of them.

One thing that stood out was a response regarding coming into science later in life. This was an interesting point for me. Many of you reading this most likely are interested in science and related fields. Is it fair to say that most of you acquired a taste for it early in life? Another poll seemed to reflect this, although the response was extremely minimal:

Were you bitten by the science bug early? Were you grown up, working in some completely unrelated field (as I still do), before you took that left turn?  It would be interesting to examine this further. Please leave some details on your own experience with science if you wish. It would make a great future post!

Thanks for reading! Drop by sometime!